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A bitter dose of unreality

By Ray Pride

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  After twenty-seven films, almost anyone's shtick might seem recycled. Yet the latest movie from 62-year-old melancholic comic Woody Allen has its brash moments that rise above familiar concerns.

"Celebrity" partakes of the good-bitter, profane and cynical, instead of the bitter-bitter of "Deconstructing Harry"'s undiluted bile. Kenneth Branagh plays Lee Simon, a much-less successful stand-in for Allen. For Simon, a failed novelist and a disillusioned celeb profile writer, failure is his forte - unlike his hunched, red-rime-eyed creator, who is content to remain behind the camera. "Celebrity" portrays a circus of crapulous self-abnegation, wherein the divorced Simon strikes out with a series of women who obsess him, from fluttery ex-wife Judy Davis - who later loves becoming "everything she had once hated" - to eager sexpot Melanie Griffith, to the dauntingly titanic model-with-attitude Charlize Theron, to Downtown waitress-waif Winona Ryder. (There's also an interlude of fifteen minutes or so with Leonardo DiCaprio, profane, lightning-smart and very funny as a spoiled young star whom Simon tries to pitch a script to during an impromptu orgy.)

We're in a black-and-white world once more, not "Manhattan"'s timeless romantic milieu, but a New York that is a place of bridges stretched over the backdrops of shots of most of the characters in their space. (There are connections being made to which they all remain oblivious.) There's even a nice steal from "A Doll's House" - a purloined manuscript tossed in the air amid a concatenation of spans. For once, even Allen's imprecise, juttering camerawork suits the nervous energy of a non-Allen character.

"The amount of celebrities - it can be anyone from celebrity clergy to news people; every field has its own," Allen says, patiently laying out his theme, choosing one of the less successful scenes as an example. "Take Bebe Neuwirth's celebrity fellatrix, and Joey Buttafuoco with his own television show, the Leonardo character. The culture is so riddled, not just with legitimate celebrities, but people who become known disproportionately. The face doctors for famous faces, it's all amusing to me."

But the true celebrity in Woody's' "Celebrity" is, of course, Woody. He's notorious for casting for type or talent, then rushing behind the camera. Some actors feel emboldened, others abandoned. Yet many channel Allen's distinctive tics, pauses, hems, haws. From Mia Farrow in several roles to John Cusack in "Bullets Over Broadway," to both Branagh and Davis in "Celebrity," we hear the director's cadences even when he's invisible. I asked Branagh, Why are you doing Woody? Are you more likely to stammer or be hyperkinetic, thinking you're playing him, or does he direct you that way? His answer is much like that of any actor who's worked with Allen: It's whatever you read into your lines, as Allen offers almost no direction.

"Well, he writes some of that in, and uh, it's a definite, uh, comic color in his work," the sometimes-brash actor-writer-director says, still sounding Woodyish. "Sometimes in lieu of lines, it's, it's, it's a kind of an opportunity to change the tone from just one-liners." A pause. "Um, in a way, it seems to me, when it happens, it's deliberate, it's not arbitrary. He'll sometimes say to me, just say the line, don't hesitate. Sometimes he wanted that. I don't think there's anything casual in Woody's movies. Even when he sometimes asks for some sort of improvisation, he uses, as does Altman, very, very little of it, he only uses the tiny bit that works." A longer pause. "It's not like he's thrilled and excited just by the idea of something spontaneous happening. He's very protective of his writing. There's no improvising gags. They won't go in. You won't improvise a gag that's funnier than what he's done, y'know. And if it isn't in the same voice, he doesn't want it in the movie as well."

Branagh hems and haws a bit before vamping his way back to the original question. "Um, so it's very deliberate. His interest or fascination with that kind of characteristic, the hesitant ,stalling, stuttering kind of manic energy, it's a tool, it's a color, y'know, kind of character that interests him because of the way such a character can butt up against human experiences, love affairs, fail-failure, in work and, and let it illuminate our kind of experience, but isn't a tool alongside many others that he uses very specifically."

So, Woody, did you direct Branagh, playing this sad fuck-up of a celebrity suck-up of a journo, to play you? "No, that's Kenneth," Allen answers quickly with unusual enthusiasm. "Kenneth is a great actor. Y'know when I hired him for the movie, I said, this is not a part I could have played when I was younger, uh, this guy would be more attractive than I ever would have been able to do. So, but, y'know, actors seize onto things, uh, a costume, a mustache, a fake mustache, in this case, it interested him to characterize it that way and he did and y'know, and so, y'know, he can do that. I would not be able to do it if I was doing a movie of his." He chuckles and a grin tickles one side of his mouth. "But he's very skillful at that."

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